Cat Ba and Mai Chau: Adventures on the Rural Route.

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Alex, J and I part ways from Martha and spend a few extra days in Ha Long Bay on Cat Ba Island. Everything we’d heard pointed to it being ridiculously difficult to get to and around on, but we coasted through a few miraculously-timed ferries and buses for a dollar or two each, found a guesthouse for 100,000 vnd ($5) split three ways, and had a glorious time.

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Alex’s camera takes panoramas! C climbing in Butterfly Valley.

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J learning to rappel.

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J teaches some local boys how to rock climb. Water buffalo looks on.

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Taking photographs while riding a motorbike is a dangerous practice not condoned by the author.

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J making friends.

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Alex makes friends! We walked through this village in which every single house had a full litter of young puppies and a mom. But no adults. . . Although in terms of free range meat, those were some happy, healthy-looking dogs, which is a lot more than I can say for many of the animals meant for consumption in the USA.

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I am so prepared for our trek across Cat Ba.

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Trail?

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Success.

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Floating fishing village from the boat back around the island.

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Floating house with satellite dish.

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When we’ve had our fill of island life, we ferry back to the mainland, spend Saturday night in Hanoi, discovering the bar and nightlife scene (all the bars close early, except for the secret ones.) We then head to Mai Chau for a last stop, a town known for it’s bucolic rice paddies, it’s White Tai ethnic population, and it’s textiles.

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Our home stay host weaving on the front terrace.

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Our first night in Mai Chau, we attend a dance show with a troupe of locals dressed in traditional costumes. The entire rest of the audience is a tour group of drunken army retirees (notice them all taking pictures of us, the white folks in the back, rather than the dancers). Halfway through the show, they began jumping up to sing ballads during costume changes, then joining the dances they recognized, and the show disintegrated.

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The night ends like this. A communal pot of rice wine with a circle of bamboo straws for all.

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The army vets are not the only ones interested in us! All over Vietnam, tourists stop us and ask to take a photo. “Sure!” I say, “I’ll gladly take a photo of you!” Oh. . . You want a photo with me. . .

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Mo Luong Cave. Used as a Viet Cong base during the French and American wars. Legend has it a dragon lives here, but we never found it, since we got escorted out for not having a guide with us.

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Hiking is fun!

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Water buffalo. After I took this photo, homeboy in the front decided we were threatening and stalked out of the water towards us menacingly. J ran away.

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Oh there’s pollution here? Yup. The higher we hiked, the less we saw.

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After a wonderful, relaxing time, we’re now in the Philippines for our last few weeks of South East Asia!

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Cheers!!
C and J

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Photos, part III (Toooo Many Photos!)

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Meeting Martha.

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The process of buying shoes in Vietnam.

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Incense at a pagoda in Chinatown, Saigon.

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Martha accustoms herself to life in Vietnam.

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Vietnamese coffee. There exists a special kind of coffee here we’ve come to call “weasel shit coffee”. The beans are eaten whole, pooed out, cleaned, and made into grounds. The effect is somewhat earthier. The same process is used with civets and elephants.

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Eating at the central market, Hoi An.

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Martha is clearly under-utilizing her bicycle.

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Tiny bananas!

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Learning a new Vietnamese sport – like extreme hackeysack, with a plastic birdie with feathers.

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Vietnamese spring rolls are the bomb.

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The Vietnamese like to carve bushes into animals. Most common are turtles and dragons.

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Xyclos!

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Martha loves Asian babies too!

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Cityscape, Vietnam.

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Martha in Tam Coc.

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J passing man herding ducks.

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Floating fishing village, Ha long Bay.

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So long!

Vietnam in Photos, part II

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We continue up the coast to Hue, seat of the Nguyen dynasty until 1968. During the war, the Viet Cong marched into Hue and massacred thousands of people, mostly the educated class suspected of supporting the South. In order to reclaim the city, the American forces basically bombed and napalmed the shit out of everything. It is an often-quoted statement that they “Destroyed the city in order to save it.”

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Much of the city is modern, including these two statues along the Perfume River.

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We visit the Imperial City, which is an odd and somewhat moving mixture of reconstructed grandeur and destroyed ruins.
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C in front of the Citadel.

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We take another overnight train to Ha Noi! This time with all four of us in our own little bunk room, where we all drank local rice wine and slept very well.
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J dresses up to see the Vietnamese Water Puppet Theater! We learn tales of creation (the courtship between a bird and a dragon resulted in an egg which spawned the 100 different Vietnamese peoples), as well as fishing scenes, courtship rituals, fan dances, and Indian and Champagne traditional dances, all acted out with wooden puppets manipulated on sticks in a giant pool of water, set to traditional music played live. A form of entertainment developed during flood season in the rice fields.
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Delicious Ha Noi BBQ. Grilled yourself at the table, and dipped in a sauce of salt, pepper, chili, and the juice of three lime-oranges, which I have not yet figured out the name of, but they’re everywhere here. (editor’s note: Calamansi!)

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Day trip to Tam Coc! We got hung up on a bus for 4 hrs, but then rented bikes for the most glorious afternoon ever – bicycling tiny trails through rice paddies surrounded by beautiful jutting rock formations.

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That time Martha fell into a rice paddy.

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This woman is rowing through the paddies with her feet.
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Next, Martha treats us all to a boat tour around Ha Long Bay! It is a UNESCO heritage site, as well as one of the “7 new natural wonders of the world,” and is beautiful. We kayak through lagoons, see monkeys with red bums, jump off the side of the boat to swim, hike up a lookout point, visit a cave actually titled “Amazing Cave”, and have an awesome time.
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Alex in Amazing Cave. Amazed!
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The ladies in row boats who come up and try to sell you snacks.
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C amongst natural wonders of the world.

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We say a tearful goodbye to Martha and she departs for Thailand, while Alex, J and I stay in Ha long Bay for a bit of hiking and rock climbing!
More photos, to come. . .

C and J

Vietnam in Photos.

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We welcome Martha, J’s mom, to SouthEast Asia!! She’s with us for 3 weeks, then striking off on her own for another 2 weeks in Thailand. Awesome!!

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We begin in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We see the sights, and get used to a much faster-paced travel style than we’ve become accustomed to. Saigon is a huge, sprawling city packed with people and motorbikes. We’ve heard tell of the dangers of crossing the street, but find it actually a sort of Zen experience – there is never going to be a break in the endless stream of traffic. To cross, you must stay close to your companions and simply step out, then continue walking at a slow and constant speed until you’ve reached the other side. The motorbikes veer around you and converge again like you were never there.

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We introduce Martha to street food, including tiny BBQ quails for 13,000 Vietnamese dong (about 60¢ a pop). Vietnamese food, we find, consists of six main ingredients: rice, pork, shrimp, garlic, ginger, and green onions. Other meats, vegetables, herbs, or fruits are sometimes added, but these six ingredients are in everything. And it’s incredible the array of dishes we’ve tasted.

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J and Phó – rice noodle soup topped with sliced meats, garlic, and green onion.

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Bahn beo. A small patty of rice noodle with a topping of shrimp, minced pork, fried shallots, and garlic. The other dish we tried at this restaurant, Bahn nam, was essentially the same ingredients, but came wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed, resulting in two surprisingly distinct flavors and textures. See also: bahn khoai, in which the rice base is a crispy fried pancake, the shrimp and pork are sliced, rather than minced, and the onion, garlic, and herbs are fresh. Equally delicious, if not more so. Many dishes are served finger-food style. For example, you order fried tofu or a sausage, and are served a stack of fried tofu, a plate of rice noodles, a plate of sliced veg and herbs, either rice paper or large leaves for wrapping, and a dipping sauce. Alex claims we overuse the term “delicious”. But it’s pretty darn delicious.

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We take a side trip for one night in the Mekong river delta, where we took a tourist trip and visited the sights, then ditched the tour and found beautiful home stay for the night.

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Coconut candy being made. Ladies folding it into small squares of paper in the background.

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J on a Vietnamese foot bridge. And yes, it moves as much under your weight as it looks like it would.

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Overnight train to Hoi An, a very cute colonial town about halfway up the Vietnamese coast. Hoi An used to be a bustling hub of trade between the Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the French, but the river silted and trade moved south. It became a bit of a ghost town, then remained un-bombed through both the French and American wars. In the last decade or two, it has been restored and showcases beautiful old buildings blending colonial architecture with Chinese decor, quaint streets, a park-like, sculpture-filled riverfront, and a booming tourist-based economy.

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We take a cooking class and learn to make Vietnamese specialties. Above, J serving our beef and green mango salad (delicious). We discover that Vietnamese fish sauce is a whole different beast than that found in Thailand or Laos. Very light – delicate even. Aromatic, but much less pungent. Also, incredibly potent black pepper.

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Bia Hoi – fresh or draught beer. Made daily and usually served at sidewalk joints from a large plastic water bottle. 5,000 vnd, or about 25¢ per glass.

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As in Laos, the French influence is strong here. Bahn my – the word for baguette and also sandwich – is everywhere, and usually contains at least three different kinds of meats or patés, possibly an omelet, sliced cucumber, tomato, a pile of herbs, and chili sauce. Above, the ladies behind our favorite stand, once visited by Anthony Bordain (though she doesn’t know it) where a sandwich with everything is 20,000 vnd ($1).

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We were in Hoi An for Women’s Day, when one traditionally buys flowers, gifts, or lanterns for your mother, wife, girlfriend, or other important women in your life. We buy flowers for Martha, exchange bunches of lychees and banana between ourselves, and Alex buys us all beer. Happy Women’s Day! We rent bikes and thoroughly enjoy spinning around town, the islands, and finding our own stretch of beach, where we all strip and J takes her first dip in the Pacific Ocean.

Urbanites.

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Welcome to KL!!

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We hit the city, but first – two days of rock climbing! A mere bus or train ride from downtown Kuala Lumpur are the Batu Caves. Beautiful limestone karsts rising from halfway down a city block, the Batu Caves are most well-known for the temples they house. However, wander north through some dingy neighborhood streets and down a dirt road or two, and there’s phenomenal rock climbing. Our suspicions are confirmed that the climbing around Krabi is severely downgraded, but we still manage a slough of 6As and 6Bs, including Alex’s first lead (!) and some epic climbing during the afternoon rains. We are an anomaly in the neighborhood and have many local spectators.

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Kuala Lumpur is very clean, and contains many super malls. We see the sites (above, the twin Petronus towers) and nap in the park. We are sadly under-dressed, and spend most of our time in Chinatown, which has some nice character and is our kind of chaotic. Saturday night, we find ourselves out on the town and befriend some locals for a most excellent city experience.

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We spend our last night in Malaysia in Melacca, an adorable port town with lots of colonial architecture. Here, we celebrated the final night of the 15-day Chinese New Year, which included this find: a temporary faux facade for a building made entirely out of recycled plastic bottles, spoons, and wire. Malaysia has treated us well – it’s a very interesting country which blends and balances a number of distinct cultures – Chinese, Indian, and Malay. It is more westernized than much of SEA, and also more strictly Muslim. We worked our way down the west coast of peninsular Malaysia, but missed the eastern side as well as the entirety of Borneo. Its a country I would love to return to someday. On to Singapore!

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You guys, I wasn’t expecting to like Singapore. I had heard it was sterile and there weren’t any dive bars. I asked people about arty and weird and was met with blank stares. But Singapore was beautiful (and we even found a dive bar!).

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At 10am on our first morning, we are invited by Kim Wong, whom we met in Bangkok, to tour Brewerkz, Singapore’s craft brewery, where she is the brew master. She is a tiny little woman, but vivacious and friendly and capable of hefting 25 kg sacks of malted hops. Above, J stirring a vat as the hops are poured in for their best-selling IPA. Afterwards, we taste-tested, lunched, and set off on our walk around Singapore in a great mood.

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We walk around the harbor, up to Little India and Arab Street, and ride the cleanest, most immaculately glass-and-stainless-steel inner-city trains I’ve ever seen. Our chouchsurfing host, Nikolas, was fabulous and we stayed in a large group house in a residential area that was still super accessible. City life! Then we depart through SleepingInAirports.com’s #1 top-rated airport. You guys, there was an orchid garden with a koi pond and free internet stations with massage chairs:

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Now in Vietnam, and have met up with J’s mom, Martha!
Lots of love!
C & J

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J and Alex, Malaysian pride.

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A fountain at Singapore’s harbor.

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J: the latest Brewerkz model.